Dr. Petra Boynton is one of the best-placed researchers in the UK to speak about the evidence that has accumulated about the effect of the Web on sex. Her Geek Calendar bio describes her as a sex educator, agony aunt and academic. She lectures at UCL in International Health Services Research and blogs extensively for herself and other publications, including The Guardian.
Here, she provides an extraordinary amount of information on the effects of media in general and the Web in particular on our changing attitudes and worries about sex and our sexual behaviours - psychosocially, commercially and beyond. Yet she criticises both the media and academia for shortfalls in reporting on and attention to the subject.
What is your background in this area?
My background in this area is a practical one. I’ve been giving sex/relationships advice online (through websites and forums) to young people and adults since 2002. Prior to this I had completed research on sex/relationships and my PhD focused on evaluating media effects research on the impact of pornography on our attitudes and behaviours. Through carrying out advice giving online I’ve also researched young people’s help-seeking behaviours online (particularly around self harm), changing patterns in mediated sex and relationships advice, and men’s discussions of sex problems online.
How has the Web influenced our attitudes to sex and our sexual behaviours?
There are the obvious ways: more access to sexually explicit materials, more opportunities to create our own erotica, and greater chances to mobilise to promote and protest against porn. But debates remain about whether this has changed our attitudes and behaviours or simply made them more available/accessible. For example, people can now find out far more easily about different sexualities, genders, sexual practices, kinks and fetishes they may have previously assumed were unique to them or too taboo to talk about.
Certainly the Web has made it easier to commercialise sex, but we tend to focus more on porn debates here, rather than thinking critically about sex toys and other products. Many practitioners, myself included, saw the Internet initially as a major opportunity for people to privately purchase sex toys, clothing, books, erotic materials etc which perhaps previously were difficult to access or a rip off. However, as more and more people jumped on the sex product bandwagon there’s a growing problem of the quality of products varying considerably and people selling products with aspirational and lifestyle messages which present a particularly narrow view of sex. This can be tricky to challenge as questioning it puts you into the anti sex camp, rather than perhaps an anti commercial camp.
Drug companies have also been quick to use the Web to promote products around psychosexual issues, adding to the wider medicalisation of sexual functioning. A classic example of this was the ‘sex, brain, body’ site set up by BI for the drug Flibanserin (trials of which were discontinued last year after the FDA failed to approve the drug due to concerns over efficacy and safety). Interestingly, drug companies who are keen to promote their products for ED etc distance themselves from online sales of sex drugs, despite medics warnings for there to be greater regulation in this area.
The Web has given us the opportunity to learn more about psychosexual problems, but also has allowed for commercialisation of our anxieties, misinformation about sexual functioning, and a whole slew of pseudo-medical sites offering various quack remedies. Interestingly even though we can find out a lot of sex information online, much of this does not give us the critical skills to identify a lot of advice given is factually incorrect and in places physically, psychologically or financially harmful.
We hear a lot about how social networks are harming relationships, yet the research in this area is still fairly limited. I would argue places like Facebook haven’t caused an outbreak of hookups or infidelities, nor led more people to cheat than would have considered this previously. It simply enables people to meet up, form relationships (positively or negatively). How we decide to use this is down to us. Yet the media often suggests it makes us act in ways outside our control or uncharacteristically. There’s no good evidence to suggest this, but a lot of judgement and speculation.
Where I think the Web can be helpful is connecting people. Letting people get information and advice privately. It can reassure people they’re not alone, not unusual, and provide sources of support and help. This can be particularly useful for those who may usually be excluded from advice: trans people, sex workers, young people, older people. My main area of work continues to be to campaign for quality advice giving online, given the paucity of this (there’s a lot of sex info online, but a lot of it is of very poor quality).
The Web has also opened up opportunities for education in sex and relationships (and other areas). Recently I heard of a colleague (Dr Ruthie) offering an online course for practitioners to reflect on the concept of ‘sex positivity’ and what it could mean for their relationship. Other organisations offer free resources and training on topics including contraception, maternal health or psychosexual therapy. Health and social care practitioners working globally can connect to share evidence, reflect on practice and improve care given.
Admittedly this is restricted, and we have to be careful not to assume most people have Internet access (particularly when giving advice), but there are many areas we don’t look at when we’re thinking about our sexual attitudes and behaviours that to me are a lot more interesting than the inevitable focus on porn debates, or the perils of social networks.
How are the effects of the Web on sex attitudes and behaviours different from the effect of media in general?
The ability to create and share is one difference. For example if you are using old media porn, it’s something someone makes for you, you pick that appeals to you, and you read/watch. The Web also allows for this, but permits you to write your own stories, describe your situation, inhabit another character, expand on existing stories (particularly in Slash Fiction), detail your sexual life through blogging, or create your own porn. Again the content tends to be fairly samey, but alters the way people interact with media and each other. This has been pretty well documented, particularly in cultural and media studies.
What I find more interesting is how sex/relationships advice-giving alters online. In traditional formats people write/email a problem letter and get a clipped (usually around 100 word) reply that hopefully signposts them to other sources of help. Radio and television can be somewhat more interactive, but not hugely so. But where you allow for interactivity online (and not everyone does) you can really expand the boundaries on what advice is and how it is given.
For example I used to provide advice for the (now sadly defunct) teen website mykindaplace. Readers would ask for advice, I’d provide as detailed a reply as possible - including links to sources of help. But other readers could also add their views and experiences. This meant while I might explain about talking to your parents or school about problems, or getting help at your GP or family planning clinic, other readers could share their actual experiences of doing the same. Adding their own advice, or in some cases challenging the information I was sharing.
I also found this helpful working on forums answering men’s problems (for example at Men’s Health). Often the problem people presented with wasn’t their actual issue, so a conversation, the opportunity to challenge and have other reader input was really exciting. It particularly worked on areas that were very sensitive and taboo; for example men talking about past sexual abuse, current psychosexual problems, or relationship difficulties.
Advice giving online, where it’s supported to be interactive, allows for more reader interaction and subverts the usual hierarchy of expertise we often see. An example of this in action (with young people) can be found at www.scarleteen.com (particularly on their forums).
What have been the changes that you’ve witnessed over the years you’ve been giving sex advice online vis a vis topics that people are curious/concerned about or behaviours that people engage in?
Interestingly, the problems people have remain fairly similar. For men (gay or straight) it’s concerns over penis size, shape and ejaculate. For women it’s often body image worries, relationships concerns, or concerns over sexual performance (particularly pleasing a partner). Both women and men, gay and straight, worry about domestic violence, relationship breakdown and infidelity. The opportunity for getting sex advice often can be limited depending on who is giving it. For mainstream websites (particularly those associated with magazines) the focus tends to be on able bodied, heterosexual, young, affluent couples. Advice for singles, LGBT people, people with disabilities, those on low incomes, teens or seniors, and BME groups is often ignored. The Internet can provide a space for minorities to get advice, but this still remains at the margins.
Having analysed problem pages from teen magazines in the 80s (when I read them) and the kind of questions I’m now asked there are some areas of difference. For example the questions can be more explicit (asking about oral or anal sex), and sexual techniques. But a lot of the worries remain the same (e.g. young women still ask me questions about menstruation you’d really hope someone would have told them). Certainly the accessibility of sexual material has altered with the presence of the Web, but other cultural shifts in old media, the commercialisation of sex, the role of the pharmaceutical industry and altering public views on sexuality and sex have played a role.
So how are moral panics about sex and the Web any different from other, non-Internet moral panics about sex?
In March 2010, the director for Public Health in Teeside stated in a press release (and also at a training event for staff) they had noticed a rise in syphilis (and other STIs) and healthcare staff were hearing some clients saying they were meeting new partners on Facebook. They made the connection that the Facebook hookups were linked to the rise in syphilis. Which spread to the Sun and Telegraph claiming that Facebook caused a rise in syphilis. In fact we don’t know if the two events are linked. People may have met via Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they had sex, or if they did they didn’t use condoms. The lack of data behind the claims made it difficult to reach any conclusion.
But the media response span the story out of control, which was troubling. Equally troubling was the lack of sexual health charities and organisations like NHS choices - all of whom have Twitter accounts and other social media presence who could have used the opportunity to debunk the story and provide accurate sexual health advice - but they were slow to tackle the issue seeing it as a bad media story, not a chance to share information. Sexual health practitioners stepped in and used Twitter very effectively to provide accurate information on syphilis, prevention and where to get tested/treatment while #syphilis was trending. It showed this intervention was possible, but how out of touch many of those who are on Twitter actually are with its potential. (more info here)
How are dating patterns different online versus off? i.e., are people more promiscuous if they meet online first, than if they meet offline?
At present we still need more research on this topic. There have been some studies, mostly focusing on gay men, that indicate those who meet online tend to have sex quickly, but it these studies are often flawed by not comparing with men who don’t hook up in this way. Or looking at how straight/bi men and women date. There is some evidence to suggest people may not hook up any quicker online than off, but may well not practice safer sex if they’ve met online. If you meet someone in a club or pub you may well take time to know them and use condoms because you understand you don’t yet know each other’s sexual history. If you’ve built up a relationship first online, particularly sharing a lot of things and feeling connected, you may not use condoms because you already feel you ‘know’ and can trust the person. It’s a good opportunity to provide safer sex advice, although many dating sites don’t adequately do this.
The thing we do see is subtle (and not so subtle) value judgements in discussions about on/offline dating. The media, some science bloggers and even researchers, often use terms like ‘promiscuity’ to refer to people forming relationships, particularly when talking about online hookups. Certainly dating online has a history of being viewed with suspicion. At first as a place only ‘losers’ went to find a date, and latterly as it’s become a commonplace way to meet a partner the focus has shifted to see it as a place where dangerous liaisons can begin.
What criticisms do you have of the research that’s been done into the effects of the Web on sexual behaviour, sexuality and attitudes to sex?
There has been some very good research in this area, but a lot of it is limited either because there’s a lack of funding, or because certain topics (i.e. how we date online) are not a priority (unless twinned with research on STIs). I’ve been particularly concerned with research on young people online. For example one study, which had a lot of attention, involved practitioners searching people’s MySpace accounts and telling them off for having sexual content. When young people removed said content it was interpreted as researchers as a form of behaviour change. They advocated this as a means for practitioners to get involved online (paper linked here) I felt they had merely shown young people, when sent an unsolicited message from a medic, removed some or all of their profiles. It did not show they had changed their behaviour. Nor were suggestive photos or discussions about sex a surefire sign young people were sexually active. The focus more on young women doing this felt like an exercise in ‘slut shaming’ to me and raised numerous ethical questions I was surprised reviewers didn’t pick up on. (This is interesting compared to other studies which indicate most young people use social networking sites sensibly, or recommend young people need to know the pros and cons of such sites, and parents play a role in educating/protecting their children).
Much of this kind of research comes from medicine (particularly sexual health or paediatrics). From practitioners who often know a lot about young people or sexual health, but often don’t know much about research methods or particularly the online environment. So you get studies that tend to follow rather than question moral panics (for example on sexting, coercion, risky behaviour) and which see ‘the Internet’ as one thing that directly harms young people. The opportunity for young people to get advice online (particularly for LGBT, disabled, BME and at risk youth) is often forgotten. A classic example of this in practice can be found in this position paper on the media and YP from Paediatrics. It suggests the media, and particularly Internet, encourages young people to view/consider sex. It fails to acknowledge for many teens the biggest trend is in ‘abstinence media’ (ie Twilight, High School Musical).
Because of a lack of understanding about young people, critical research on sex, and particularly online environments, there is a danger funding bodies pay for research to be done on young people/sex/Web that are outdated before they begin. Researchers can be equally ill informed, so design studies that are well intentioned but don’t fully focus on the issues affecting young people and the Web. Reviewers and journal editors also may lack awareness to be able to evaluate research/interventions.
Some work appears to reinvent the wheel also. For example there are plenty of youth websites and sources where young people can be researched about online activity. Yet we see researchers with little or no knowledge of youth journalism and the Web setting up their own websites or forums to ‘test’ young people’s Internet use. This creates static and artificial situations where young people’s Web use is not truly assessed. The worry comes where such studies show the Web is either helpful or harmful to young people, when in fact their real interactions online have not fully been explored.